Therapy Homework: Imagining Assertiveness

Therapy Tuesday.  You know that you’re really in it when you don’t want to go.  My therapist looks a little too happy to see me.  Wipe that grin of your face dammit! It’s go time, and I don’t want to go.  I, of course, smile and comply.  I keep my inner toddler in a crate much like an insolent Australian Shepherd.

I used to own an Aussie.  She was lovely and beautiful and loyal to a fault.  I was her shepherd meaning that she followed me everywhere.  Wherever I went, she went.  I was never alone.  She developed a brain tumor, however, and began trying to attack people.  Her breed instincts were amplified by this tumor.  Aussies are naturally suspicious of strangers.  This is a breed standard.  They guard sheep and cattle.  This is a necessary trait.  My Aussie became ferocious.  She stopped recognizing people whom she knew and became dangerous.  Because I was her “person” she would respond to my voice.  On a good day, I could snap her out of attack behavior.  This began happening just before she died.  She always knew who I was, but she lost the essence of who she was as a trained working dog and trustworthy pet because of her tumor.  Our lovely vet kindly helped her pass with her head in my lap.

Trauma is a bit like my Aussie’s brain tumor.  It amplifies things.  Everything starts to become threatening.  We don’t recognize what is safe because everything feels potentially dangerous.  My Aussie went into fight mode.  And, like my Aussie, this heightened state follows you everywhere.  She would sit outside the shower and wait for me when I bathed.  She refused to be without me.  She was waiting for a command from me.  A job to do.  Well, a post-traumatic brain feels like this.  No matter where you go, there it is.  The hypervigilance.  The startle response.  You might not even be thinking of anything trauma-related, but you’ll startle if someone sneezes.  This is due to hypervigilance.

If you used to be assertive, then it becomes harder.  Threats are now generalized.  Uncertainty.  Fear.

How do you deal with this?

I have PTSD.  I’ve had it for years.  My symptoms will die down although I have never lost an exaggerated startle response.  If I’m doing really well, then it’s tolerable.  Currently, I want to crawl out of my skin if I’m startled, and I can’t tolerate loud noises.  I was in a café on Tuesday with a dear friend, and the management decided that 1 PM was the best time to install a new refrigerator.  The noises produced by the drill–the stripping of the screws and the banging–overwhelmed me.  I wanted to dissociate, and I’m not highly dissociative.

Therapy is getting harder because my therapist is starting to drill.  I can feel it.  He is talking to me about my perceptions of my husband as all-powerful.  I’m smart.  This is part of PTSD.  Your perpetrator is viewed as all-powerful.  I know that my husband is not all-powerful, but there are moments when it feels like an old programming switch is hit.  Suddenly, I change my behavior.  I know that I do this.  I hate that I do this.  I feel like I’ve got some malware in my brain, and I know who put it there.  My parents.  I don’t know how to get rid of it.  I’ve de-bugged my brain quite a bit, but there is still this old code in there.

He’ll do something that I perceive as aggressive or threatening and, suddenly, I’ll apologize, assume the submissive position, and go silent.  If we’re out in public, I’ll actually bow my head and walk behind him like a concubine.  I’ve even called him ‘sir’ if you can believe that.  It just comes out.  “Yes, sir.”  Funnily enough, he doesn’t say anything.  He’s got a wife calling him ‘sir’ and walking behind him with her head bowed.  When he does notice, he tells me stop it, and I can’t.  I get stuck there.  I can observe myself doing it.  I feel very angry about this, and I feel ashamed to admit it.  But, I know that this is deep programming.

So, my therapist is having me observe times when I could be assertive.  He doesn’t want me to be assertive.  He just wants me to observe the environment.  When I see a time in which I might be able to assert myself, then I am to note it.  If I were to assert myself, then what would that look like? What would I say? No action.  Just observation.

This is helpful to me because it prevents me from shutting down.  That “switch” won’t get flipped if I feel like I am safe to observe possibilities.  I don’t have to act, but I could think about acting.  I could create a scenario in my mind about what I could possibly say or do.  My brain now has another option.  The Stepford Wife malware can’t automatically override my thinking brain.  This is really important because if I can keep my thinking brain engaged, then my Fainting Goat brain, my amygdala, won’t take over.

So, try this exercise if you have a similar struggle.  Remove any pressure from yourself that you might feel to act.  Step back and observe what you could do.  Imagine what you could say.  Where are your opportunities in different scenarios to assert yourself within your relationships? Don’t, however, feel any pressure to act.  This engages your brain in a different way.  If you are at all in a heightened state, this exercise is very helpful…and hopeful.

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